Cameron doesn’t understand the Scotland debate

Alex Salmond isn't interested in a "binding" referendum - he’s interested in winning a democratic ma

In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, David Cameron revealed that he was planning to bring forward proposals which he hoped would settle the "uncertainty" surrounding Scotland's constitutional future in a "fair, decisive and legal" way. This raised suspicions that the Prime Minister was about to call a pre-emptive, Westminster-led referendum on the break-up of Britain.

In the event, nothing so dramatic transpired. Instead, Cameron has made an offer to Alex Salmond: hold an independence poll within eighteen months on the basis of a straight-forward Yes/No question, and Westminster will grant formal legal status to whatever result it produces. Refuse, and any future referendum run by the Scottish Parliament will be nothing more than advisory -- a kind of glorified opinion poll.

There are a couple of reasons why this must have appeared to the Tory leader as a clever political manoeuvre. First of all, if Salmond were to accept, he would forfeit the power to set the timing and wording of the ballot, both of which will be crucial in determining the outcome of the vote. Secondly, it hands a degree of initiative back to the Unionist parties, which have so far struggled to contain the SNP's juggernaut momentum.

On closer inspection, however, Cameron's intervention represents a rather clumsy and unthinking lurch into a debate he obviously doesn't fully understand. 

The SNP is under no illusions about where constitutional authority in the UK lies. The nationalists know full well that for any referendum on Scottish secession to be binding, it would have to be ratified by the Westminster Parliament which remains - despite devolution - ultimately sovereign under the terms of the British constitution. It follows, then, that Alex Salmond has never intended to hold anything other than a non-binding or advisory referendum. What matters to him is that he secures a clear democratic mandate from the Scottish people to pursue the further transfer of powers from London to Edinburgh or, if he's really lucky, the creation of an independent Scottish state. The First Minister reckons he is more likely to get one or other of these things if he delays a poll until his preferred date of 2014 or 2015, after the full effects of the coalition's cuts have begun to bite and Scottish resentment toward the Tories un-mandated austerity drive has hit fever pitch.

But if the SNP rejects Cameron's offer -- and on the basis of this press release, it already has -- will it not be exposed to accusations of obstructionism? Is Salmond not taking a huge political risk by denying Scots the opportunity to vote sooner rather than later on an issue of such critical importance? One might think so. Yet, the opposition parties at Holyrood have been putting forward arguments like this literally every week since the SNP won a parliamentary majority last May and the only discernable effect has been to push nationalist poll ratings up, not down. At the last count, the SNP registered 51 per cent support, while Alex Salmond himself remains phenomenally popular.

So, before Cameron congratulates himself for having achieved what he thinks is an important political victory, he should ask himself a couple of questions. How often have Westminster politicians gotten into a tussle with Alex Salmond recently and won? Moreover, how seriously have they underestimated the resilience of Scottish nationalism and its appeal to Scottish voters? The Prime Minister may soon be forced to realise he is in a fight he probably can't win, with an opponent he can't quite comprehend.

James Maxwell is a Scottish political journalist. He is based between Scotland and London.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.